Precious moments are abundant at sea, but, like most things, there are challenges. Gorgeous sunsets and getting close to wild creatures most people will never witness also comes with long hours, bouts of seasickness, and being away from loved ones.
California Group Director for Point Blue Conservation Science Jaime Jahncke went on his first science expedition in 1994; it was a cruise to assess anchovy stocks off the coast of Peru where he grew up. “Being at sea is fantastic. You can see things that no one else can see like a breaching whale or a rare bird,” said Jahncke. “But if you are sick it is pretty awful because there’s nothing you can do to escape the thing that’s making you sick.”
We’re off the north-central coast of California on the NOAA Ship Bell M. Shimada for a marine mammal and seabird survey. A team of scientists has spent the last week logging wildlife sightings and collecting water and biological samples as part of a long-term effort to monitor National Marine Sanctuary ecosystems.
On the last day of this cruise, members of the wildlife observation team spoke a little bit about this work and why they think protected places like our National Marine Sanctuaries are important. The following is written in their own words, which have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
She is chief scientist and research coordinator for Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary; Roletto has been going out to sea regularly since the late 90s.
I miss my husband, dog, and cats, but I live near where I work so you’re never really that far from home. That is one of benefits of place-based monitoring; with species-based monitoring, you have to go to where the animals are.
My job is really diverse. I like being able to put the pieces of the puzzle together for an unknown question. As research coordinator, my job is to find researchers who are doing work relevant to the sanctuary – people like Carina Fish who are studying the impact of ocean acidification on deep sea corals.
Long-term monitoring data isn’t exciting – it’s doesn’t get the “oohs and aahs” but it is really important. You can’t identify what’s really special or different without long-term monitoring data. For example, we can do rapid damage assessments because we have this data. Long-term monitoring is like a savings account. You put the data aside – you put a little away and when the need arises you have it. We wouldn’t be able to talk about climate change, about long-term change, if we didn’t have that long-term monitoring data.
It’s satisfying to have all this data when there’s an event like an oil spill incident – a leaky vessel or an accident – and be well prepared to respond. We’ve used ACCESS and Sanctuary data so it’s satisfying to be able to say, “This is what it looked like before; this is what it looks like now; and, this is what it will take to make to restore it to that previous state.”
Sanctuaries are important because U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service protects populations; sanctuaries protect habitats. You can’t have good populations of whatever is out there without homes – can’t have one without the other. We take care of the grocery store and the apartment building and fisheries takes care of the things that live there.
Lindquist is the ecosystem monitoring manager for the Greater Farallones Association (GFA); she’s the birder for this cruise and has been going out to sea for 18 years.
I think the long days with no breaks (in terms of working 10 or 30 days straight) are hard. You get some intermittent weather breaks, but nothing you can plan for. You do get tired.
I love being in the ocean wilderness and the extreme environment — seeing all the different faces of it. On shore, people go to national parks and they can be there and experience them in a way that people don’t have the chance with oceans 40-plus miles off shore. I think if people did, they would understand why [National Marine Sanctuaries] are so special and why they should be protected.
Devlin is a research associate for Greater Farallones Association and wildlife observer on this cruise; she has been working on programs at sea like ACCESS since 2005.
The break in the normal routine is challenging. I love to come out here and then it’s great to get back home, but when I’m home, I can’t wait to be back out here.
It’s physically hard standing in weather and sun for the long hours – the change in diet and exercise too, but I love it. I miss my family, but I think it’s important for my son to see his mom do something that’s important to her and something that is important to others.
I like being part of a team and part of something that contributes to the knowledge base. Being out on the ocean is a touchstone of who I am – it inspires me to keep doing this work. It’s gratifying over the years to see what we’ve contributed to the knowledge base and how much more there remains to do.
Marine sanctuaries protect valuable resources like the biodiversity of life we see here – from the rich basis of life, the phytoplanktonic stuff all the way up to the largest mammals on Earth. If we don’t study it, we won’t know what we have – hopefully others see the value in that.
She is the data manager for Greater Farallones Association and the data logger in this expedition; this is Nairn’s fourth year at sea.
Every cruise is different. The weather is pretty hard, but you can get through it and that feels good. The lack of privacy is hard too – after a while I need to turn inward, but it’s also good to be forced to get out of it.
I love the sense of adventure and independence. The sea is one of the last wildernesses and getting to experience that is really magical. Wild spaces have intrinsic value. True wild spaces and ecosystems are valuable in and of themselves.
Jenny Woodman, Proteus founder and executive director, is a science writer and educator living in the Pacific Northwest. Follower her on Twitter @JennyWoodman.